If there was any doubt as to why the Saudis might think the leadership of this country would look the other way on the atrocity they are alleged to have committed against our colleague Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump erased it Thursday night.
The president of the United States, who has long referred to journalists as enemies of the people, celebrated an act of violence against a reporter on U.S. soil — to cheers and laughter from his supporters.
At a rally in Missoula, Mont., he commended Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) for assaulting a reporter last year during a special-election campaign. The congressman was sentenced to community service, anger-management classes and a small fine for attacking reporter Ben Jacobs of the Guardian, who had had the temerity to ask the candidate about the Republican health-care bill.
“Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy,” Trump told the crowd at the rally. This, mind you, is the same president who keeps howling that Democrats are turning into violent mobs.
As horrifying as Gianforte’s behavior was, there is of course no comparison to torture and murder, which is what is now believed to have happened to Khashoggi. But Trump’s point could hardly have been clearer: Journalists deserve no protection, much less respect for their role in protecting the functioning of democracy.
Meanwhile, something even more insidious is happening. As Robert Costa and Karoun Demirjian report, Trump supporters in the far-right reaches of the fever swamp — among them, his son Donald Trump Jr. — are mounting a quiet campaign to slander Khashoggi and the work for which he appears to have given his life:
In recent days, a cadre of conservative House Republicans allied with Trump has been privately exchanging articles from right-wing outlets that fuel suspicion of Khashoggi, highlighting his association with the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth and raising conspiratorial questions about his work decades ago as an embedded reporter covering Osama bin Laden, according to four GOP officials involved in the discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Those aspersions — which many lawmakers have been wary of stating publicly because of the political risks of doing so — have begun to flare into public view as conservative media outlets have amplified the claims, which are aimed in part at protecting Trump as he works to preserve the U.S.-Saudi relationship and avoid confronting the Saudis on human rights.
Costa and Demirjian note that this is a distortion of Khashoggi’s actual record and his point of view:
While Khashoggi was once sympathetic to Islamist movements, he moved toward a more liberal, secular point of view, according to experts on the Middle East who have tracked his career. Khashoggi knew bin Laden in the 1980s and 1990s during the civil war in Afghanistan, but his interactions with bin Laden were as a journalist with a point of view who was working with a prized source.
Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen, left his home country last year and was granted residency in the United States by federal authorities. He lived in Virginia and wrote for The Washington Post.
Nevertheless, the smears have escalated. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son and key political booster, shared another person’s tweet last week with his millions of followers that included a line that Khashoggi was “tooling around Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden” in the 1980s, even though the context was a feature story on bin Laden’s activities.
So as Trump promises “very severe” measures against Saudi Arabia if there is confirmation of what appears to have been the case, which is that its government was behind the horrific death of a journalist, let us be clear-eyed about what is going on here. Trump and his supporters are not looking to punish it. They are looking for a way to excuse it. And if that means journalists everywhere feel they are less safe — well, to Trump and his supporters, that is something to celebrate.